For those of you unfamiliar with Urban Adventures, let me bring you up to speed. Essentially Urban Adventures is a series of locally-run in-destination walking tours in cities throughout the world. A joint venture of Intrepid Travel and the WHL Group, Urban Adventures offers fun and unique tours in over 85 global cities like Melbourne, Philadelphia, London, and Toronto.
Toronto Urban Adventures, headed up by the wonderful Jason, has two very successful tours – Multicultural Kensington Market and Chinatown, and the excellently named Beer Makes History Better Tour. Today, they launch their brand new Toronto Highs & Lows Tour, and I got a sneak peek at the tour on Sunday.
Designed to show off the literal high and low structures of the city, and its high and low points in history, this is a pretty mixed walking tour, with lots of neat stuff packed into three-and-a-bit hours. Tourists will get fun look at the idiosyncrasies of the city’s past and present, and locals (like myself) will find that they discovered things about Toronto they never knew existed!
Starting off at Yonge-Dundas Square, many Torontonians will remember how sketchy the intersection used to be not that long ago. James, the tour guide, reminisces that his mum used to tell him not to go to that area; my mum did the same, as did most parents, I’m sure. Now, however, the photos James has of the old intersection bear no resemblance to the Times Square-esque bright lights, hustle bustle, and public gathering space.
As the tour heads south down Yonge, we hear the tale of this so-called ‘longest street in the world’, find out how the Canon Theatre got its name and why it has such a small street frontage, hear the torrid family history of the Masseys, and discover why the Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre are likely to induce giddiness in theatre historians. Within three blocks I’ve probably learned about ten things I didn’t know about the city…and I grew up here.
The tour continues into the history of buildings and the Toronto fire of 1904, down into the subterranean PATH system (Toronto’s extensive underground tunnel system – in fact the world’s largest), the Financial District, and on to Union Station, a high point in the tour (although I won’t tell you why).
We debate whether the Toronto Maple Leafs are a high or low point for the city, with James reminding us that although the Leafs possess the longest continuous sports championship drought (or something like that), they are also the most lucrative franchise in the NHL, raking in more money than any other team. They’re also still the second most winningest team in the NHL, with 13 Stanley Cup victories, behind only the Montreal Canadiens. The fact that the last cup was won in 1967, however, is a pretty low point, considering our closest shot at the Stanley Cup in recent memory was what, 1993?
Continuing down to the waterfront, we hear the tragic tale of the Noronic, a boat that caught fire in the middle of the night in Toronto Harbour back in the 1950s. Toronto residents: have you ever heard of this disaster? It’s the most deadly disaster in Toronto’s history. I never even knew it happened, and was starting to feel like a really bad Torontonian.
The tour finishes off with two different high points – the CN Tower, and SteamWhistle Brewery. SteamWhistle offers a complimentary sample of their excellent pilsner, so it’s a great place to end the tour with a chat and some beer. As we stood enjoying our bevvies, I was really amazed at everything I had learned on the tour. Most of the people in my group were, in fact, locals, and we were pretty impressed with the amount of cool stuff there is to know about the city. We were also, however, a touch ashamed that there was a lot we didn’t know. It seems as though tourists may know more information about the city than locals do!
This tour certainly demonstrated how much fun you can have when traveling locally, and just what you can learn in your own backyard. Now, I don’t want to spoil too much of the tour, but just so you understand where I’m coming from, here are five of the most interesting things I learned on the tour. (There are about thirty more, but I don’t want to ruin it, now do I?!).
1. The Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre used to show soft-core porn. Christopher Plummer is currently there performing in Barrymore. My, how things change.
2. There is a small conservatory on Richmond just east of Bay called Cloud Gardens. It has a lovely waterfall, some intricate architecture, and a small conservatory with conditions that emulate mountain ecologies. It is open Monday to Friday, 10am to 2pm. I never knew it existed.
3. The PATH system holds a number of Guinness World Records, including that of the largest underground sidewalk sale in the world.
4. Standing outside the RBC buildings, we learn that it would be futile to break all the gold glass windows and melt them down for the gold, because once gold and glass are melted together, they can never be separated. Also, the gold in the windows of the building actually cost nothing… (the tour will tell you why).
5. The CN Tower is still actually the tallest free-standing structure in the world…but specifically, it is the world’s tallest continual free-standing structure…or something like that. Essentially, it’s all one piece of concrete. The Burj Dubai is made up of a bunch of smaller pieces, thus, we have still trumped them.
The Toronto Urban Adventures Highs & Lows tour is available now for $37 CAD, so head over to the site and book it online. Whether you’re visiting or live here, it’s a pretty interesting walking tour to take…and it ends with a beer!